Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Smart Nation report card: Let's get digital

Catching a bus is now a breeze, as is renewing a passport. But how far has Singapore really come in its Smart Nation drive? The Sunday Times speaks to those with their finger on the (pulsing) screen, including the minister overseeing it, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.
By Grace Chng, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 22 May 2016

Creation of new high-tech jobs? Tick

Improved quality of life? Tick

Impact on society? Tick

When Singapore launched its Smart Nation initiative in November 2014, these were the goals the minister in charge of the drive, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, wanted to achieve.

Other facets have emerged as the digital push went into overdrive: openness of data and the notion of creating solutions.


Asked for his report card on the Smart Nation project in an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times recently, Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Foreign Minister, says: "By looking at these areas, in terms of jobs, business, quality of life and openness of data and the whole (notion of) creating solutions, I think we have made reasonable progress in the past 18 months."

In terms of jobs, he says, based on reports in the media, there is a shortage of engineers, computer scientists, cyber security experts and data analysts, which is a good sign because "we have generated demand for jobs by Singaporeans".

There is no question then that Singaporeans know something is afoot, and that there are fresh opportunities for those who want to switch careers and get retraining in infocomm and communications technology (ICT) skills. General Assembly, a global educational firm that teaches digital technologies to mature students, for instance, has even opened an office here.

"Even the universities are getting better-quality students, truly interested in computer science, and this is good," he says.

There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving on the Internet - whether it is in coming together to help deliver masks during the haze or to identify and help those with special needs.

There is also good progress in the start-up sector. More start-ups are emerging. As a result, Launchpad @ OneNorth, which offers affordable office rentals to firms in this sector, is expanding by at least a couple of blocks.

There is interest from other countries, which want to connect their start-up communities to those in Singapore. And software developers and entrepreneurs are using more government data to develop their own smart mobile apps or solutions.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA), for example, has made available data on estimated bus arrival times through a special software called application programme interface (API) to coders, entrepreneurs and others, who can use it to build other apps.

Last month, the downloads for that API numbered nearly 400 million - or 83.3 per cent of the 480 million API downloads from LTA's Datamall, which contains other transport-related APIs.

Other third-party apps that use LTA's Bus Arrival Information include SG Buses and gothere.sg. With these, bus commuters do not have to wait too long for their rides. They can find bus arrival times, to more than 95 per cent accuracy, from the Mytransport mobile app.

Says Dr Balakrishnan: "So, if I can get people's waiting time reduced, travelling time reduced, you may think it's very mundane, but I think it's an important index that you're using Smart Nation and using technology to make life better."

There are also fewer complaints from the public about the inability to get data on different issues such as the incidence of lightning, flooding or weather patterns.

"We're willing to share government data with anyone. At the same time, we want to make sure that the Government is not a choke point, we need to ensure that we are more efficient. We must ensure that the APIs are integrated to our back-end systems, then we step out of the way and let the community come forward," he says.

Still, there are gaps to be plugged. The Smart Nation march has not touched mobile payments, for example. While there will be demand for it, implementation is not so straightforward, not only because of the kind of technology involved, but also because of the challenge in implementing it smoothly and securely.


The Smart Nation initiative was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the aim of developing and deploying technology at the national level, to improve lives, create opportunities for the future and strengthen community togetherness. He appointed the tech-savvy Dr Balakrishnan as Minister-in-Charge. "I'm the runner for the Prime Minister," says Dr Balakrishnan.

To galvanise the smart city movement, a Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) was set up in the Prime Minister's Office, headed by civil servant Tan Kok Yam. This signalled to ministries and agencies that the initiative was vital for Singapore's continued growth.

The SNPO acts as a flag-bearer, nudging the public sector to create smart digital solutions. The more smart solutions that are created, the greater the velocity, and the Smart Nation movement can gather momentum.

The Smart Nation initiative is looking for "needle movers", the big innovations described by people as "BHAG" - big hairy audacious goals - that would push Singapore to the next level.

It is early days yet, says Mr Tan, and a leap of faith is needed. "It's almost like the swamp reclamation to build Jurong. Smart Nation is akin to Jurong. It may not be impressive but it is essential for our growth."

One measure of how well and how fast Singapore can build smart solutions rests squarely with the Government. Its facilitator is the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), which provides the technology know-how to assist and guide the public sector in developing its own smart solutions.

IDA drives the Digital Government, which is a key pillar of the Smart Nation initiative. It is doing this by building in-house software development capability, then mobile apps, and then "architecting" and developing bigger software systems to run larger projects.

About 120 specialists in data science, engineering, coding and other areas form the central team that undertakes product design and development work.

IDA assistant chief executive Chan Cheow Hoe says the team will be developing the Business Grants portal, which organises public-sector grants according to business needs at different phases of their growth.

First announced in this year's Budget, the portal addresses the issue businesses find time-consuming and challenging: finding the government grant that best suits them. This project cuts across various ministries and agencies and will be ready by the fourth quarter of this year.

Consultant Simon Giles, from ICT consulting firm Accenture, credits Singapore for being able to break down the silos represented by different agencies and ministries, and then proceed to integrate them to get smart services.

A city is only smart when you are able to co-relate data across dimension, he says. "It is where someone takes information from a mobility system and co-relates with meteorological info and derives some sort of insights to make a decision," says Mr Giles, who is managing director and industry lead for Global Cities at Accenture.

Indeed, Mr Tan notes that ultimately, the Government wants to make interaction with people frictionless, and because it knows the most about people here, it can anticipate their needs.

For example: Passport expiring? No need to apply for a new one, because the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore knows the expiry date and can send you a message with an icon on it.

Click on it and it means you need a new travel document, and it will be ready for you in a few days.

However, Accenture's Mr Giles feels that looking ahead, Singapore has lots more to do in the area of human-centred design, which is a creative approach to problem-solving. It starts with the customers and ends with solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.

"Singapore needs to embed human-centred design, not only within government, but also among the private sector," he says.

For Dr Balakrishnan, implementation, data security and promoting local start-ups are challenges that need to be addressed. "Implementation of big projects must be rolled out that reach out across the whole of government. Local start-ups must be born global from day one. So, we must help them go overseas."

He says the Government must also ensure that people's personal data is protected, "otherwise no one will share their data with us".

In reality, medical records are already electronic. "But why can't we make it available to the relevant people?" he asks. The answer is security. Solve security and the other things will fall into place. But he adds that security is not trivial - it is hard to protect and defend data against cyber threats.

Looking ahead, the private sector also has to step up and play a greater role in developing smart solutions. The setting up of four corporate venture funds last week is a good development. The four, which received financial support from the National Research Foundation, are logistics provider YCH, agribusiness Wilmar International, real estate firm CapitaLand and local ICT firm DeClout.

Each of them can set up a $20 million corporate venture fund, with the NRF chipping in $10 million on a matching basis. They can use the money to fund start-ups to develop innovative smart solutions in logistics, homes and offices, and health.

Regulations have also to be re-thought. In past years, when information about businesses was hard to come by, it made sense to impose rules and check for compliance. But with analytics, errant firms can be pinpointed quickly and business practices tracked in real time. So, such regulation may amount to overkill.

Says Mr Tan: "We've to think a lot more about legislation. It should be used as a tool to enable tech adoption and create platforms."

For example, he wonders: Does Singapore require legislation for banks to offer a single payment system? It can be done but Singapore is an open economy and the Government is wary about intervening in business.

Looking at the sharing economy in the US, where services like Airbnb and Uber are gaining greater popularity, he asks if Singapore should also consider some regulation in this area.

"Do we need to take a look at labour laws, and do freelancers require legal protection?" he asks.

"All this is worth thinking through. But we shouldn't be so tight about our laws that any sharing economy service can't operate here. Fundamentally they create value - you call for a shared car that takes you from point to point, value has been created. We should ensure that there is a level playing field and leave the market to decide the winners."

As a small country, Singapore is on its way to being a Smart Nation.

Its work will never be done as new technologies emerge, new ideas and services become achievable, and fresh challenges appear.

But what is heartening is that IDA is rolling up its sleeves and getting its hands dirty again, being involved in the nitty-gritty of designing ICT systems and writing code.

As one part of IDA cuts over to the new GovTech Agency later this year, this in-depth technical "I-know-how-to-do-it" expertise will be crucial for its role as the chief information/technology officer for the Digital Government.

As everyone figures out how to roll out the smart services, it is worth remembering that the best measurement of success for any Smart Nation solution is when technology becomes invisible, and the service becomes natural to use.

What other cities have come up with
The Sunday Times, 22 May 2016

Singapore is not the only place that has switched on to being Smart.

Japan, Sweden, South Korea, Dubai and Spain are among the many countries embarking on smart city initiatives. Many of these centre on the sustainable use of energy and more efficient government services. Most of them aim to improve residents' quality of life.


The Sunday Times was in the state in March to check out an app of the Dubai Police. It includes:

• A certificate of traffic record. This is a person's driving history from the time he gets his licence. It shows traffic fines, accidents and other violations. If he has a clean slate, he can use it electronically to get better auto premiums from his insurance company.

• Traffic accident report. Drivers can make a police report using their smartphones. They snap a photo of the accident or sketch a drawing on the touchscreen to show the positions of the cars. This is e-mailed to police with the drivers' particulars. An official report is issued within two hours. Forty per cent of all road accidents are reported through this channel.

• Drive Mode. This notifies drivers via a voice message of traffic accidents near their homes. It can be configured to within a 10km or 20km radius. This feature also suggests an alternative route.

• Transactions Bar. This is where every e-transaction is recorded. It could be the issue of a driver's licence or an online fine payment. A soft copy is kept in a digital evidence box. Once recorded, the files cannot be changed. Only the user can easily view the materials.

Over at the Dubai Police command-and-control (C&C) centre, a huge wall-to-wall screen of the city is on one side of the room. Video feeds are pumped in by surveillance cameras, enabling police to monitor traffic activities.

This centre monitors all calls and e-mail from the public, whether it is to report a crime or someone who has fainted. Between 6,000 and 7,000 calls and e-mails are received on weekdays, reaching 10,000 on weekends.

The centre's features include:

• Emergency numbers: These are configured to be visitor-friendly - for example, just as one calls 911 in the United States, the same number in Dubai will also reach the police. The C&C also accepts the emergency numbers of Europe, China, Russia and India. Its police in the centre can speak seven languages, including Persian, Urdu, Dutch and Mandarin.

• Heart patient services: Such patients can register their addresses, phone numbers and next-of-kin details. The centre can see the concentration of "hearts" on its big screen, which means that police can station ambulances in the vicinity to provide more immediate help. Once registered cardiac patients dial 999, police instantly recognise them. Within 15 minutes, an ambulance with paramedics can arrive to treat them and, at the same time, their next of kin are contacted.

• Closed-circuit cameras near emergency exits at public places like the airport and malls can be remotely controlled by the C&C centre in an emergency. During last year's New Year's Eve inferno at a 63-storey hotel, police used the cameras to locate people and evacuate them. Hundreds of thousands had gathered there to watch fireworks, yet no one was seriously injured.


A digital dashboard in the mayor's office keeps him updated on the health of his city. The central piece of information comes from CityScore, which counts 24 metrics from Wi-Fi availability to crime statistics to grants for the arts, said a report in The Economist magazine. Anything above one on CityScore means all is going as planned, while under one means the mayor is likely to act. The dashboard also charts happenings such as the number of road potholes filled every day.


Smart city services target different segments that include healthcare for the elderly, sustainable use of energy and mobile payments. The city also supports entrepreneurship, making available government data to develop third-party apps.

Some of its smart solutions are:

• Mobile payment for parking. One-third of all payments are made via the app.

• GrowSmarter, a project that aims to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. It includes a scheme for hybrid cars to guide drivers to routes that limit the number of stops, and environmentally friendly trucks with equipment that allows traffic signal prioritisation at junctions.

• Drive Me is the world's largest pilot in self-drive cars.


South Korea is building a city from scratch to showcase smart solutions.

Songdo aims to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent and cut energy use by 30 per cent. Electric-powered water taxis will ply canals, and energy-efficient trains will link Songdo to Seoul.

New concepts include sensors embedded everywhere to tell temperature and weather, while household waste is sucked into underground tunnels before being processed at waste plants.

The Sunday Times' trip to Dubai was sponsored by US-based infocomm technology firm Avaya.

10 smart public-sector ideas
By Grace Chng, The Sunday Times, 22 May 2016

If you have ever had to type your address into an online government document, you will know how frustratingly easy it is to get it wrong. But an opt-in feature called MyInfo now stores that personal data, so you never input it incorrectly again.

Frustrated by overflowing rubbish bins in your estate? There are now sensors to tell garbage collectors which are full.

Want to know what time your bus arrives? There is an app for that - MyTransport.sg.

These are just three of the ways in which the Government is being the flagbearer for Singapore's Smart Nation initiative.

Ministries and public-sector agencies are using technology to create services to make people's lives easier and make it more convenient to deal with the public sector.

Leading the charge is the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA). Software development was something it used to outsource. But two years ago, it built a central team of engineers, data scientists, coders and others to do this.

It has built an application platform for government mobile apps to plug into. This platform has been tested to ensure it works with all mobile devices and computers. This promotes reusability and time to market. Certain software components need to be developed only once and then re-used. Agencies save development time and costs because they do not need to do testing.

Next up, the IDA technical team is working with ICT vendors that have won tenders for agency projects. One collaboration involves building from scratch a National Trade Platform to replace the 20-years-plus Tradenet.

IDA's assistant chief executive Chan Cheow Hoe said in this way, both parties learn from each other, which lifts overall industry standards. "It also means the Government now knows the code and systems developed for each project, so that should anything happen, it can provide future support."

Here are 10 mobile apps and systems developed by the public sector:


Designed to help save lives. It alerts the Community First Responder Programme - a collaboration between the People's Association, Ministry of Health and Singapore Civil Defence Force - to send someone to perform CPR on a cardiac arrest victim while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.


An opt-in feature where users need provide their personal data only once to the Government, instead of doing so for every e-transaction. This saves time, avoids mistakes and eventually removes the need for physical documents as verification. It is now available across 10 e-services, including applications for new flats, the Baby Bonus scheme and polytechnic admissions.

By 2018, most SingPass-authenticated e-services will be linked to this platform.


A citizen-based app for people to share sightings of flora and fauna here. People send in their sightings, which are then mapped.

Litter-bin management system

Sensors have been installed in about 10,000 rubbish bins to detect when they are full. Garbage collectors can know which bins need collection. This also allows the National Environment Agency to find out where bins are most needed and to monitor the work of waste collectors.


A major mobile app from the Land Transport Authority (LTA). It comprises several apps that help users of public transport.

One is Bus ETA, which helps reduce waiting time at bus stops. Sensors embedded in 5,000 buses let the LTA monitor the travelling time of buses. Analysing the data, the LTA system can predict bus arrival times. Launched in April last year, Bus ETA tells the daily ridership of 3.75 million commuters' arrival times - with between 95 and 98 per cent accuracy.

Outpatient Pharmacy Automation System

Available at National University Hospital (NUH) and others, this cuts waiting time for prescriptions to be readied at hospitals and polyclinics. At NUH, for example, 95 per cent of prescriptions are filled within 15 minutes.


An electronic meal-ordering system prevents wrong diet orders from being given to patients. Orders are taken on iPads. This enhances accuracy, efficiency and productivity. The system saves 40 man hours for nurses and, for kitchen staff, seven man hours in consolidating orders.

AG Boxes (aggregation gateway boxes)

These provide street-level connectivity to send data such as traffic numbers and air quality measurements, collected by cameras, sensors and other components, to government agencies for analysis.

They are located at places such as traffic junctions and bus stops. They also supply power to equipment such as surveillance cameras and weather sensors. Applications include security and crowd management.

SingStat app from Statistics Singapore

This lets people easily access national data such as gross domestic product figures, manufacturing indicators and population information on the go. More than 200 charts show the data in an easy-to-understand manner.

Open data

This has about 1,000 data sets that can be processed by computers. They can be used by anyone from schoolchildren to teachers or retirees to develop apps to benefit the community.

Vivian Balakrishnan on Smart Nation: Buying a couple of decades of global relevance
The Smart Nation report card may have a lot of gold stars, but where to go from here? The Minister-in-Charge of the initiative, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, tells The Sunday Times about the gains - and the challenges ahead
By Grace Chng, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 22 May 2016

Q What are the challenges for Smart Nation?

A Implementation is one. I'll give you an example. We have been looking at autonomous vehicles and I've come to the conclusion that technology is actually here.

What we need now is policy implementation (such as) insurance, licensing, liability.

Another challenge is data security. How do you protect data? Because if you don't protect data, people will not share.

Actually, all our medical records are already electronic. But why is it we can't make it freely available? It's because you have to solve security.

There's always this tension between security and convenience. But at some point, we have to take a risk. But this is something that cannot, should not, be decided by one man or an agency. We need to do it collectively.

Q How do you get SMEs to participate in Smart Nation activities?

A (They should) take advantage of the Budget's targeted assistance - on capability development, providing funds for robotics, for platform technologies.

Don't just (use the funds to) buy a computer. Seriously think about revamping and upgrading your capability and your innovative potential.

It's not just a subsidy scheme. It requires focus and bandwidth.

Whatever business you're doing - running a restaurant, a retail outlet - all this has been transformed. And if you don't transform, you're going to be out-competed.

Q What are your three key priorities for the next 12 months?

A The role of the Government in Smart Nation is: 1) making sure our infrastructure is the best; 2) to invest in research, development and education and capability building; 3) policy innovation (where) our policies, rules, regulations need to catch up; 4) Government as a smart buyer, by encouraging the development of prototypes, new products, new service by local SMEs.

These are things that only the Government can do. Then we stay out of the way. Let the private sector and the people get on with it.

Q What help do Singapore start-ups need?

A I'm trying to connect them more globally, internationally. That's why this idea of getting others to come here, getting ours to also establish bases overseas.

Our start-ups need global opportunities because in this digital age, you have to be global almost from day one. Your app is competing, whether it's Google Play or the App Store. It's a global marketplace.

Q Where is Singapore's competitiveness in the global economic value chain?

A We are not Silicon Valley. So we must think carefully about the global value chain and where we are most competitive. I think we can be competitive in a few things.

First, compared with Silicon Valley, our infrastructure will be better than theirs.

I can tell even Google that we will try to solve the policy issues for autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence because we have a single layer of government. We have a prime minister who "gets" it.

So there are some things which we can do, and it's not a zero-sum game. Singapore just needs to be part of this global value chain that will buy a couple of decades of global relevance for Singapore.

Q What is your report card on Smart Nation around a year and a half since it was launched?

A We were looking at three dimensions: jobs, quality of life and society.

On the jobs, you know that there's a shortage (of engineers, computer scientists, cyber security experts and data analysts). That's a good sign because we have generated demand for jobs by Singaporeans.

Then we're bringing in courses like those provided by General Assembly (a global educational company teaching digital technologies to mature students).

The emphasis is not on paper qualifications but on practical qualifications. So on the job front, I'm quite happy that we've been able to move the needle on jobs.

The other index I've been looking at is start-ups.

Launchpad (at one-north) is already expanding into a second phase. It even has a Block 71 San Francisco (a US-based co-working space).

Other countries are also interested in connecting their start-up communities to ours, so there is definitely more buzz in the start-up community.

The third area is quality of life.

Simple things like waiting times (at bus stops), less (bus and traffic) congestion are important.

I must give credit to LTA (the Land Transport Authority). It really used data and data science to help inform their decisions on planning bus routes, on injecting more buses.

On the community space, people are using the Internet to find common causes and to actually do things, whether it's to deliver masks (during the haze) or to help people with special needs.

There is a greater sense of community ownership, participation and problem-solving, and it goes beyond the Government. It's not just about "I wait for the Government to do it".

The fourth thing I'm quite happy with is the level of open data. Go to data.gov.sg

Five years ago, everybody would complain to me: "Oh I can't get data on dengue, on lightning, on floods." Today all that (data) is available real time, online and free.

By looking at these four areas, in terms of jobs, business, quality of life and openness of data and the whole (notion of) creating solutions, I think we have made reasonable progress in the past 18 months.

Smart Nation push to see $2.8b worth of tenders this year
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 24 May 2016

Singapore's infocommunications technology infrastructure is poised to be ramped up like never before, as the country's Smart Nation drive gathers pace.

In all, a record $2.82 billion worth of technology tenders will be called this year, with infrastructure alone accounting for close to two-thirds of the total budget. This proportion was last seen in 2007 when the Government installed standard computer systems across all its agencies.

There will be a bulk tender for network and cabling, new computers for civil servants, and IT security services. Another tender will help extend Wi-Fi coverage in all 367 government schools to every classroom, from just assembly areas and canteens now.

The projects will be rolled out over three to five years, said Infocomm Development Authority managing director Jacqueline Poh at a briefing with the infocommunications industry yesterday.

"Investment in infrastructure is necessary so that innovative citizen-centric services can be built and enhanced on a strong foundation," she said.

For instance, the Government's data storage and hosting capacity will increase by at least 25 per cent, which is needed as more data will be gathered by the agencies to better anticipate citizens' needs.

Also, all civil servants will receive new desktops and laptops over the next three to five years.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said there will also be a big push for manpower development following this huge infrastructure outlay.

"There will be a structural shift in the types of jobs needed to fuel this new economy, with openings in the areas of data analysis, cyber security and software development."

Over the past two years, the Government has spent more than what was budgeted. In 2014, for instance, $1.2 billion was budgeted but $1.95 billion was spent.

Last year, $2.2 billion was set aside but contracts worth $2.69 billion were awarded. They included Smart Nation infrastructure such as Aggregation Gateway boxes to supply power to surveillance cameras and traffic sensors deployed islandwide.

Mr Aloysius Cheang, Asia-Pacific executive vice-president of global computing security association Cloud Security Alliance, said the spending is just the tip of the iceberg. "We are not even in the thick of the Smart Nation action, which is mostly about data collection and analysis and ensuring data privacy and security."

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